This is not going to be a column about all the things the New York Times got wrong about the Los Angeles Times in its recent front-page story by Tim Arango and Adam Nagourney, "A Paper Tears Apart in a City That Never Quite Came Together." It is not, for the most part, going to be about all the things the New York Times got wrong (or simply failed to mention) about Los Angeles itself in that article, which argued that recent turmoil at this newspaper is emblematic of the city's broader lack of support for its major institutions. Plenty of smart people have already weighed in on both fronts.
And yes, every word in the previous sentence links to one of those smart people. Here are a couple more for good measure. When Josh Kun, Carolina Miranda, Daniel Hernandez, David Ulin, Alissa Walker, Matthew Kang and Carolyn Kellogg are united in knocking your analysis of Los Angeles, it might, you know, be a sign.
Anyway. This is going to be a column, instead, about something slightly different: about the legibility (and illegibility) of cities more generally. About how we react — as reporters and critics and simply as people — when we're confronted with a city that doesn't make sense to us right away.
Ten days or so before that story appeared, I spent a long weekend in Houston, meeting up with three old friends ostensibly to see the Warriors, the NBA team I grew up rooting for, play the Rockets — but also just to hang out and eat barbecue and visit the Menil, my favorite museum building in America (just edging out another Texas landmark, the Kimbell in Fort Worth).
Houston is casually written off even more often than Los Angeles, which is saying something. Now the fourth largest city in the country in population — and gaining on third-place Chicago — it's an unruly place in terms of its urbanism, a place that (as Los Angeles once did) has room, or makes room, for a wide spectrum of architectural production, from the innovative to the ugly. Like Los Angeles, it's a city that invested heavily in freeways and other car-centric infrastructure last century and remains, in many neighborhoods, a terrible place to walk.
It's long been a place people go to reinvent themselves, to get rich or to disappear. The flip side of its great tolerance is a certain lack of cohesion, a difficulty in articulating a set of common civic goals. (Here's where I concede that the instinct behind the New York Times piece on L.A., if little about its execution, was perfectly reasonable.) As is the case in Los Angeles, the greatest thing and the worst thing about Houston are one and the same: Nobody cares what anybody else is doing. Freedom in both places sometimes trumps community. It also tends to trump stale donor-class taste.